Morning Jac: Div. III's Other Undefeated Team
While their undefeated brethren, RIT and Denison, are found at the top of the weekly polls and regional rankings, a third unblemished program in Division III toils in near anonymity. When the dust settles on Selection Sunday, however, Keuka College hopes to be found in the same place as their high-profile peers – amidst the NCAA bracket.
Keuka, located on the banks of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate N.Y., isn't necessarily clamoring for national attention. The Storm's head coach, Jason Paige, was a three-time All-American at Washington College, and understands that playing in the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) doesn't lend itself to notoriety even with a 12-0 record, and Keuka's best win is an overtime affair against NCAA qualifier Emmanuel.
However, this season marks the first time that the NEAC has an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament and the Storm are the No. 1 seed in the league tourney that begins today when Keuka hosts Medaille and Morrisville State entertains Hilbert. Paige says any of the four teams could win the tourney berth, but from an outside perspective, his team is certainly the heavy favorite.
"This is one of the best teams that I've ever had," said Paige, who has been the head man at Keuka for 16 years. "We have 12 seniors and they are a very committed group. I believe our leadership base is outstanding. We had a rough season the year before this senior class arrived and they did a great job stabilizing things. I can't say enough about what this group did, and I hope we have a good week. Having 12 seniors, that's a significant number to me; having that many kids stick with the lacrosse program for four years."
The rise of Keuka has coincided nicely with the emergence of the NEAC as an AQ league. The reputation of the school has improved, which has made the program more attractive to student-athletes in the fertile lacrosse fields of CNY.
"Consistently over the time I've been here, our administration has done a great job helping us grow and given me the support to actually go out and build the program," Paige said. "We've been fortunate to be able to establish some connections through the Buffalo and Watertown areas. We have a lot of Syracuse-area kids, but we've also done well with Section V, and that has allowed us to build a program. The last couple of years we've had the largest roster sizes that we've had in my tenure."
The formation of the NEAC, which also includes Cazenovia, SUNYIT, SUNY Cobleskill and Wells, has been a godsend for all the teams, if only to have opponents to play late in the season.
"There is just more structure," Paige said. "Before we entered the NEAC, we were in a situation where every year I'd have to figure out what teams we could play in the area, and especially in April when everyone was in league play. Now, the kids know that when we get to the last week of March, the conference starts and we have Wednesday-Saturday games and we have a chance for some recognition not only at the academic end, but at the athletic end. I definitely think that helps with recruiting. Now that we have the automatic qualifier, that's a big plus because we have a chance to go on to the next step."
The Storm are led by seniors Connor Latimer and Scott Miller. Latimer, a Whitby, Ontario, native who was a two-time All-American at Genesee Community College, was the offensive player of the year in the NEAC last spring and has 58 points this year. "We basically built our offense around him," Paige said. Miller was the defensive player of the year in the conference last year and will likely be a four-time all-NEAC pick when the conference awards are doled out.
Keuka is understandably cautious as they enter the NEAC tournament. Even with an undefeated record to date, they have no shot at the NCAAs unless they get the automatic bid. It still doesn't lessen the anticipation that the Storm has for the opportunity to run with all of the top teams in the country, including those other two with undefeated records.
"I've been waiting for this opportunity for quite some time," admitted Paige. "The one thing that I told the kids is this is an opportunity that a lot of solid teams here haven't had. This has been a great season and the kids are definitely enjoying it, but they are grounded enough to know that if they don't come to play, things are going to be tough. Our goal is to be successful and I hope our seniors can enjoy that experience. I know it was a great experience for me as a student-athlete years ago. Until you go through that process, it's hard to describe. So we'll see what happens."